BIG TEXAS, SMALL BUDGET

Courtney Drake-McDonough

Day 1

San Jacinto

San Jacinto marks a pivotal event in Texas history (http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/san-jacinto-battleground ). The natural landscape of the monument grounds is dominated by the world’s tallest obelisk is surprising. While admission is free to the grounds, we skipped the visit to the top of the monument, opting for a self-guided tour of the historic battlegrounds that ended Mexico’s rule over Texas. The WWII Battleship Texas moored nearby is well worth the nominal fee. This impressive monument to American naval might prompted Grandma to share her personal stories about The War, bringing American history to life for the kids.  Next, we headed south to the Crown Jewel of the Texas Gulf Coast: Galveston.

Galveston

Once the largest and wealthiest city in Texas, Galveston boasted itself as the “New York City of the Gulf Coast” with a future promising unending prosperity. Galveston has had a tough time of it with numerous hurricanes over the decades. Happily, today’s Galveston makes the most of what remains from the glory days. A good size island city, the streets are on a grid and with Broadway as the major spine running the length of the city, making it easy to navigate.

At one end of the city, The Strand historic district offers shops, eateries and sights with plenty of cheap parking. We strolled the cobblestones of this compact area, grabbed a snack, then took a tour of a real offshore oil rig (www.oceanstaroec.com ) next to the Cruise Ship terminal. The massive cruise vessels in port were, well, as big as Texas.

Glittering, warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico greet us as we arrive at Seawall Boulevard. A long commercial drag, Seawall is loaded with touristy spots. We rent a Surrey www.galveston.com/biking and cruise the wide promenade taking in the dolphins, surfers, squadrons of pelicans and boats of all sizes.

Stop at “The Spot” (http://www.thespotgalveston.com) for inexpensive burgers and fried fish. Two orders of chocolate-dipped pecan pie are musts at this iconic joint.  

 

Days 2 and 3

Port Aransas

The trek to Port Aransas (www.portaransas.org )is a four hour drive that’s easily navigable through agricultural landscapes and roadside attractions. Time passes quickly as grandma plays silly car games with the kids. Getting to Port Aransas requires a free, five minute ferry ride (watch for dolphins) to Mustang Island. “Port A” as it is known has small town Texas charm in spades.

Nature

Port Aransas is known for its nature and wildlife-viewing, all free. Our favorite: the Leona Turnbulle Sanctuary with a long boardwalk into a marsh full of wildlife. The University of Texas Marine Sciences Institute Visitor Center www.utmsi.utexas.edu/visit/visitors-center.html has a small but interesting collection and a wheelchair accessible path that wanders through a natural dune landscape with interpretive signs and scenic views.

Kitschy beach shops are perfect for taking fun family photos. A huge candy shop with bushels of salt water taffy and other confections delights the kids. Colorful golf carts are a popular way to get around the island; rentals are available everywhere. Festivals liven things up, so check the calendar. (www.portaransas.org )

 

Days 4 and 5

San Antonio

 After a mellow island break, we head inland for a very different experience in San Antonio.  Sprawling, but easy to navigate with highways ringing the city, San Antonio is an old city with a rich history offering numerous attractions and frequent festivals and celebrations. We focus on the truly unique and connect with travel themes of nature and history.  After our low-cost exploration along the coast, we splurge a bit on our accommodations. No regrets.

 

The Alamo: We begin at the epicenter of Texas identity: The Alamo. As San Jacinto marks the end of the conflict for independence, The Alamo symbolizes the start of the struggle for Texas independence from Mexico. Easy to find, with lots of parking at nearby lots or even street meters, The Alamo compound offers a great museum with impressive displays of old firearms and other artifacts, along with oasis-like gardens and courtyards. See www.thealamo.org. Amazingly, admission is free.

The River Walk

The staircase leading down to the intimate watery world of cobbled San Antonio is filled with  picturesque cafes, flowers, giant cedars and people. Lots of people. The River Walk http://www.thesanantonioriverwalk.com/ and The Alamo are the top two tourist attractions in all of Texas, and the narrow walkways get very congested, a scrum of tourists and café waiters along the most popular stretches. Visit early morning to avoid crowds and heat. Nighttime is magical, with lights dancing on the waters. Our chatty guide on the snug boat cruise points out specific buildings and sites…a subterranean history lesson and unique viewpoint of the buildings above.  It is well worth the $8.25 for adults. Wait up to an hour for a cruise. The Azteca Theatre ticket station, thankfully, is a short 10 minute wait.

Dining options are mostly Mexican, classic Texas (BBQ, catfish, chicken fried steak) and burgers. Most offer table service dining on or by the water for viewing. Riverside tables are lovely, but diners get ogled and nudged by passersby. Above the River Walk, at street level, are more options that are less scenic but offer more privacy. On our budget, we opt for a simple picnic lunch along a quieter, newer section of the River Walk that is very natural with fragrant jasmine flowers.

Driving out of downtown, we stumble on the SouthTown area and the King William Historic District (www.kingwilliamassociation.org), a neighborhood full of impressive mansions, dreamy gardens and wiry Live Oaks gracefully arching over the streets. Drive or take a walking tour.

Resort Lodging

After a frugal day in central San Antonio, check into the Westin La Cantera Hill Country resort (http://www.westinlacantera.com/?source=404). This stunning introduction to the Texas Hill Country on the northern edge of San Antonio is carved into the Limestone bluffs.  La Cantera elegantly drapes itself among the oak forested hills with views in every direction. Grand yet comfortable, the resort has lush courtyards and a series of pools and waterfalls. Kids being kids, they wanted to hit the pools immediately. For dinner, the kids had pizza from Brennan’s pub, while we hopped on the resort shuttle to The Shops at La Cantera (http://www.theshopsatlacantera.com/ ).

Beautifully landscaped, The Shops is an outdoor shopping district with shops, restaurants and an area for events like outdoor jazz concerts. Take a sip at CoCo, a spiffy walk-up kiosk, offering delish desserts, beer and wine. Later, jazz in the air, stroll the shops and dine at ZTejas (www.ztejas.com ), one of the upscale casual eateries with a dramatic outdoor dining area.

Sea World

Our second day in San Antonio features another splurge…Sea World (http://seaworldparks.com/seaworld-sanantonio/ ).  Even for this group of budget travelers, it is worth the fee for the once-in-a-lifetime experience with marine wildlife, Vegas/Cirque De Soleil inspired shows, and amusement park rides. Make the most of $50/head fee by pre-purchasing tickets online. The weather is too cool for Aquatica, a unique new water which disappointed the kids, but not my wallet as that costs extra. Huge, sprawling with exhibits, Sea World can pose a mobility challenge, but grandma sternly declines a motorized cart (about $30/day). We head to Bob Miller’s (www.billmillerbbq.com ), a nearby joint popular with the locals, for a delicious, yet inexpensive, Texas-sized meal.

Photo cutlines and credits:

  1. Ocean in Galveston: People and horses along the beaches of the warm gulf waters in Galveston. Photo courtesy CDM Communications.
  2. Turnbulle Sanctuary: The long boardwalk of the Leona Turnbulle Sanctuary leading to the marshes.  Photo courtesy CDM Communications.
  3. Alamo: People always say the Alamo is smaller than they expected but it packs a lot of history into a small space. Photo courtesy CDM Communications
  4. River Walk: San Antonio’s River Walk offers a unique experience not to be missed. Photo courtesy CDM Communications.
  5. Westin: After days of being budget conscious, the Westin La Cantera Resort is our lush reward. Photo courtesy Westin La Cantera Resort.
  6. Sea World: Sea World is a must-see experience with amusement park rides and splashy animal shows. Photo courtesy Sea World.
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